The Butler is a lesson in the civil rights movement from start to finish. It opens with slaves on a cotton plantation and ends with the success of Obama’s presidential campaign. This film covers a lifetime and, as a result, can seem rather long and drawn out, but it is worth the patience. Although director Lee Daniels drew on the cheese strings a little too heavily in parts, overall The Butler is a well-acted drama with a strong message. If re-enactments of significant historical moments are your thing, then this may be the pre-Oscar season movie for you.
If I ever end up in the kind of lifestyle that permits the employment of a butler, I hope I find someone as kind and detail oriented as the character of Cecil Gaines. Forest Whitaker plays this kindly butler who is always there when needed, who sees his employer’s comfort as top priority, and who has an undeniably infectious laugh. It is interesting to note, however, that for a character with such a charmingly pleasant chuckle, Whitaker spends the vast majority of the film with a melting frown. During the first half, his eyes sparkle while he shines shoes and polishes silverware, but as his character grows older, his pleasant countenance sags like an overused sofa cushion. This is due to his double-faced lifestyle: the calm face he wears at work, and the anger he masks at home. Whitaker is an absolute success in playing both the pleasant, just-happy-to-be-here servant at the same time as the stressed father who can’t control his family. His wife has issues, his son has bigger issues, and poor ol’ Gaines is serving tea to the guys who are failing to make it all right.
Since the film follows Gaines’ career serving presidents, you can imagine that there are plenty of presidents represented in The Butler. In fact, there are at least 5, by my count. Imagine you are the casting director for a film that asks for 5 different actors to play not only 5 different well-photographed and recognizable presidents, but to find matches for their equally recognizable wives a well. Good luck. With that. I can’t say the actors chosen look like their respected politicians, but I can say they are extremely talented actors and do their darndest to step into these iconic roles. For example, while James Marsden may look nothing like J.F.K., he sure tries his best to sound like him. The best re-enactment in my humble opinion was, in fact, not a president at all, but Nelson Ellis in his portrayal of Martin Luther King Jr. He only appears for a moment, but he looks right, he sounds right, and (to the casting director’s relief, I’m sure) he acts like his influential, powerful, yet non-violent preacher counterpart.
The Butler does not shy away from the violence of the civil rights movement but it does not seek to exaggerate it either. There is an excellent balance between drama at home, political debates, and action in the streets. Lee Daniels highlights the injustice of this era not only in the U.S.A. but, briefly, in South Africa as well, making it a film about race across the globe. The Butler is an important movie in its historical context, demonstrating the rights and wrongs of protesting as well as how the protestors’ actions affect their families at home. Oprah Winfrey tackles the emotional struggle of one such housewife and mom. Whereas Whitaker, in most scenes, is sporting a mask of compliance, each scene with Winfrey is a new angle of emotion. From depression to euphoria, she covers it all.
Accompanied by a lovely piano soundtrack that sounds like an echo of The King’s Speech, The Butler is a dramatic film which questions what is right and what needs to be done in order to make it right. Although there are a few moments that feel purposefully drawn out, allowing you time to reach for a Kleenex, the film in general is very well acted and the story well conveyed. As we approach a cinema season filled with history lessons and royalty tributes, it’s nice to focus on a story about the guy who is just happy to make these famous figureheads the perfect cup of morning tea.